Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure. The title conjures images of goofy, poorly-made kids’ games filled with bright colors, Disney-like characters, and simple game play. In other words, not exactly a game one over the age of eight would want to play. But the old adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover” has never applied more to a video game since, maybe, Viva Piñata for the Xbox 360.
Zack and Wiki may look, sound, and even play like a simple game for children. Even so, those initial impressions couldn’t be further from the truth. Zack and Wiki is simply one of the most fun, clever, and unique games to come out since the cult hit Psychonauts for the Xbox. It’s also very difficult, and not a game that could be recommended to children unless they’re geniuses.
The game is a throwback to the sadly defunct point-and-click adventure games like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series that were popular in the early ‘90s. Instead of using a mouse, Zack and Wiki utilizes the unique control provided by the Wii’s remote to drive game play. This is a natural evolution for the adventure genre that may have finally found an outlet in Nintendo’s Wii to grab back some of the spotlight.
Those familiar with some of the above adventure titles will find Zack and Wiki easy to pick up and play, evoking a definite feeling of familiarity in the core game play. Those unfamiliar with the genre should find the control scheme extremely intuitive—the controls consist only of a few button presses and the use of the Wiimote as a pointer.
The game plops Zack (a young, aspiring pirate) and his sidekick, Wiki (a flying monkey) on a level, gives the player a fly-by view of points of interest, drops a few visual clues here and there, and then players are on their own. A dim spotlight appears on screen, indicating where the Wiimote is pointing. By simply pressing the ‘A’ button, Zack will move to where the spotlight is pointed. By pointing on interactive objects (indicated by vibration through the remote) and pressing A, Zack will interact with them. This ranges from picking up rocks and pots to pulling chains and pressing buttons.
This is Barbaros. Hi, Barbaros!
Object interaction is where much of the motion interactivity comes into play. Let’s say Zack sees a tree. The player can instruct him to walk up to the tree and interact with it. Upon doing so, a prompt will appear on screen instructing the player in how to hold the Wiimote. In the tree example, you may be instructed to hold the Wiimote upright, like a joystick, and (naturally) shake it to see what’s in the tree. Other examples may be holding the remote horizontally and thrusting it forward to emulate dropping something, or pointing it at the screen and turning it like a key.
There are dozens of different grips in the game, almost all of them intuitive and appropriate. Although some of them feel tacked on for novelty’s sake, the ones that appear again and again are well done. One complaint would be that the prompts that tell the player how to hold the remote almost make the game too easy. It would have been interesting to take those away after the first few levels, once the player is acclimated to the game and used to the variety of grips.
Another interesting gameplay mechanic is the use of Zack’s sidekick, Wiki. The humorous flying monkey can be rung like a bell with a flick of the Wiimote. Doing so will change nearby enemies into useful items for solving puzzles. Players may find objects that they can interact with, but can’t do anything useful until an item is found. Centipedes and their bladed tails turn into centi-saws and frogs turn into aquatic explosives. These enemy-generated tools offer deep game play possibilities with their multiple uses and applications. Just when you think “Oh, I have to get that snake to do this,” the game shoots that down and adds wrinkle after wrinkle to keep the player guessing.
At the core of an adventure game is the puzzles. Zack and Wiki‘s do not disappoint and are some of the most mentally challenging in gaming today. No sooner than the second or third level did I fail repeatedly at a puzzle. The game truly makes you consider each and every move before you do it, often linking smaller puzzles in cause-and-effect relationships and punishing those who act too rashly. Boss battles tax brains much more than reflexes, levels can become hopeless with one false move, and “game over” is a constant companion. Zack and Wiki is without a doubt one of the most challenging games on the market today.
Don’t try this at home, kids.
The game offers an interesting hint system that other puzzle games should take note of (Zelda and Metroid, I am looking at you) and build off. As the player earns currency by smashing rocks and vases, oracle dolls can be purchased at an ever-increasing cost. The player can call upon the Oracle at any point during a level and receive a clue, at the cost of one doll. The twist here is two fold –- first, the dolls don’t come cheap, especially later in the game. Second, the clue received may or may not be related to current progress in the level. If a player gets stuck halfway through a level and calls for a clue, the point may be moot. While this system is flawed, it is head and shoulders above games with no system or games in which “clues” are simply “here’s what you do.” Money can also be used to purchase tickets that revive Zack upon death, so players don’t have to start the level from scratch.
Zack and Wiki offers a cel-shaded art style that, admittedly, is very kid-friendly. Zack is clad in bright clothing, Wiki is a golden yellow with huge ears and a helicopter tail, and all of the environments and enemies feature a unique, over-the-top aesthetic. By using this simplistic art direction, the game looks perfect on the Wii, with little to no loading times or glitches. Graphically, Zack and Wiki looks very much like one would expect a game called Zack and Wiki to look -– and that’s not a bad thing.
As far as story goes, this isn’t some deep, meaningful tale about life and death, good and evil. It can pretty much be broken down as such: Boy wants to be a pirate. Boy agrees to assist cursed legendary pirate in exchange for his ship. Boy runs into crazy female pirate who messes with him. Boy finds treasure along the way. While simple, the story is filled with clever dialogue—particularly from Wiki and Zack’s foil, Rose, a rival pirate. Zack and Wiki uses its story to deliver small gags, and in the process it doesn’t take itself very seriously. As a result, it turns out to be a great and rare example of humor in games.
Zack and Wiki‘s unique mix of game play, graphics, humor, and use of technology almost can’t be compared in today’s market. Don’t let this one go the way of criminally underplayed games like Beyond Good and Evil, Ico, and Eternal Darkness just because it is different, especially given its $39.99 price tag and 20+ hours of game play. Zack and Wiki is a game straight out of 1993, and hopefully, it’s the first step in an adventure game renaissance for the console market.